Without Precedent

Without Precedent: The Life of Susie Marshall Sharp

ANNA R. HAYES
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 576
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807887813_hayes
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  • Book Info
    Without Precedent
    Book Description:

    The first woman judge in the state of North Carolina and the first woman in the United States to be elected chief justice of a state supreme court, Susie Marshall Sharp (1907-1996) broke new ground for women in the legal profession. When she retired in 1979, she left a legacy burnished by her tireless pursuit of lucidity in the law, honesty in judges, and humane conditions in prisons.Anna Hayes presents Sharp's career as an attorney, distinguished judge, and politician within the context of the social mores, the legal profession, and the political battles of her day, illuminated by a careful and revealing examination of Sharp's family background, private life, and personality. Judge Sharp was viewed by contemporaries as the quintessential spinster, who had sacrificed marriage and family life for a successful career. The letters and journals she wrote throughout her life, however, reveal that Sharp led a rich private life in which her love affairs occupied a major place, unsuspected by the public or even her closest friends and family.With unrestricted access to Sharp's abundant journals, papers, and notes, Anna Hayes uncovers the story of a brilliant woman who transcended the limits of her times, who opened the way for women who followed her, and who improved the quality of justice for the citizens of her state.Without Precedentalso tells the story of a complicated woman, at once deeply conservative and startlingly modern, whose intriguing self-contradictions reflect the complexity of human nature.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0580-7
    Subjects: History, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-4)

    If, as F.Scott Fitzgerald said, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” then Susie Marshall Sharp was a genius.¹

    Brains and a propensity for hard work were two of Susie Sharp’s most obvious characteristics. On both sides of her family, these qualities had enabled her forebears to survive and even prevail over the difficulties of war, poverty, and the general benightedness of the backcountry in the South. In her parents were joined long lines of patrician plantation owners on...

  5. PART I BEGINNINGS

    • CHAPTER 1 FAMILY
      (pp. 7-19)

      When Susie Sharp was born, her father was a thirty-year-old failure who had not yet reached bottom. James Merritt Sharp (b.1877) was the son of a Civil War veteran from New Bethel Township, North Carolina, a yeoman farmer known for his well-tended fields and orchards. A 1930 retrospective newspaper article described the Sharps as “members of a well-known Rockingham County family . . . good citizens, debt-abhorring and honest . . . the sort who dignify toil.”¹ Jim Sharp grew up in a family that, like many others, existed outside the cash economy, needing money for little beyond sugar and...

    • CHAPTER 2 FORMATIVE YEARS
      (pp. 20-32)

      By the time she finished high school, Susie Sharp had set her course in life. She had decided she wanted to be a lawyer and that she would never marry.

      Reidsville High School achieved accreditation with the addition of a fourth year and implementation of a strong college preparatory curriculum in 1919. By the time Susie graduated in 1924, the school could boast a highcaliber faculty for its time and place. The principal and other male faculty members were educated at the University of North Carolina, except for one teacher in the commercial department, who had gone to Elon College....

  6. PART I I PURSUIT OF THE LAW

    • CHAPTER 3 UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA SCHOOL OF LAW
      (pp. 35-54)

      Susie Sharp sometimes said that her legal education began the day her father got his law license. As a student at the University of North Carolina School of Law, however, her formal legal training outstripped not only her father’s but also that of the vast majority of practicing lawyers in the state. Indeed, her arrival in Chapel Hill coincided with fundamental changes taking place in legal education in general and at the UNC law school in particular.¹ These changes, which were related to the emergence of the New South as an increasingly integral part of the nation as a whole,...

    • CHAPTER 4 FALSE START
      (pp. 55-79)

      Jim Sharp wasted no time in ordering new “Sharp & Sharp” letterhead and adding “Miss Susie Sharp” to his standard ad in the newspaper. Miss Sharp was ensconced in her own office in one of the law firm’s three rooms on the second floor of the Whitsett Building in downtown Reidsville.¹

      Her father intended for her to become his equal in the law practice. Despite his determined equanimity, however, such an attitude toward women in the workplace was by any measure exceptional. For example, less than a month later the news that the vice president of the United States was...

    • CHAPTER 5 SHARP & SHARP
      (pp. 80-98)

      If Susie Sharp had departed Reidsville feeling that she would never make it as a lawyer, especially in a practice with her father, her return two years later marked a sea change. Apparently having made up her mind that her place was in the Sharp & Sharp office, she caught hold swiftly, beginning a trajectory as a general practice lawyer that would carry her to a solid position in the Rockingham County bar.

      At first, however, it seemed that nothing had changed, that clients still “wanted no part of that girl” when they sought legal counsel.¹ Clients continued to come...

    • CHAPTER 6 POLITICS AND PUBLIC LIFE
      (pp. 99-115)

      The very idea of a woman judge was almost incomprehensible in 1949, when the vast majority of United States citizens had never seen a female attorney, let alone a female judge. Certainly the citizens of North Carolina had never seen a woman presiding over a courtroom. Unlike a handful of other states, North Carolina did not even have any female justices of the peace or judges of such lesser courts as those with jurisdiction over municipal, county, probate, juvenile, or domestic relations matters. The court reporter or stenographer might be a woman, but a female clerk of court was rare...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. 116-126)
  7. PART III SUPERIOR COURT(1949–1962)

    • CHAPTER 7 APPOINTMENT TO SUPERIOR COURT
      (pp. 129-145)

      Susie Sharp’s appointment as the first woman judge in North Carolina owed as much to a quirky gubernatorial election in which the courthouse crowd backed the losing candidate as it did to her exceptional qualifications. That the winner of that election, William Kerr Scott, was a showman and a populist who loved nothing better than shaking up the establishment certainly was a factor in her appointment to the bench. Perhaps equally as important was her alliance with her mentor and her father’s old nemesis, Allen H. Gwyn. The explanation for her success that she herself most often cited—and perhaps...

    • CHAPTER 8 JUDGE SHARP, PRESIDING
      (pp. 146-166)

      The new judge received a variety of advice as she awaited the assignment of her first term of court. Chief Justice Stacy counseled her to be careful of her sentencing power. “A new knife is very keen. It will cut deeply without you knowing,” he warned. “You watch your sentencing power.”¹ Judge Allen Gwyn passed along an admonition against arrogance, in the form of a quotation from Shakespeare’sMeasure for Measurethat his mother had given him when he took the oath of office.² The old reprobate P. W. Glidewell Sr. cautioned her against “the blandishments of the Bar,” saying,...

    • CHAPTER 9 AMBITION
      (pp. 167-183)

      Susie Sharp was always disingenuous about her ambition, perhaps even to herself. There is no doubt that initially she had been conflicted about accepting Governor Scott’s appointment to the superior court, primarily due to her concerns regarding both her father’s health and the short-term nature of the special judge’s tenure. But whether or not she had ever aimed for the trial court bench, there is evidence that she had long imagined a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court, although she rarely admitted it.

      It was a subject she and Breck had discussed for years, as revealed in a poignant...

    • CHAPTER 10 THEORY AND PRACTICE
      (pp. 184-208)

      Almost five years passed before Judge Sharp was assigned to hold court in her home county, a hiatus designed to put some distance between the new judge and her former colleagues in the local bar. Even so, old friends found it difficult to substitute “Your Honor” for “Susie.”¹ Judge Sharp herself was acutely conscious of presiding over the Wentworth courtroom in which she had practiced law for twenty years. About the prospect of holding court at home, she had remarked shortly after going on the bench, “I hope that I will be spared this ordeal for some time to come,...

    • CHAPTER 11 THE ROAD TO THE SUPREME COURT
      (pp. 209-237)

      If Susie Sharp was nurturing ambitions to become a member of the state’s highest appellate court, she was not willing to sacrifice John Kesler to them.

      In vivid contrast to her feelings for Venitah Breckenridge, she found every mention of Sudie Kesler by John or others to be painful. She hated to hear him refer to “my wife” and would sink into silent despair until he reassured her of his feelings for her. Once, when someone told her about meeting Sudie with John before they were married, Susie Sharp recorded that it had made her sick to her stomach.¹ (Her...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. 238-246)
  8. PART IV NORTH CAROLINA SUPREME COURT(1962–1979)

    • CHAPTER 12 TAKING THE VEIL
      (pp. 249-273)

      The morning after she was sworn in, she reported for her first day at work as an associate justice. Her attention was diverted, however, by a furor in the press over issues related to her appointment.

      Most distressing for Justice Sharp was an article on the front page of theNews and Observerin which the lead paragraph read, “Judge Susie Sharp, the first woman ever to become a justice of the State Supreme Court, believes that the average woman’s place is in the home.”¹ The story was picked up by newspapers all over the country and as far away...

    • CHAPTER 13 OPINIONS
      (pp. 274-297)

      The lady justice, a term recently deemed an oxymoron, had garnered more votes than any other candidate on the ballot statewide. It was just one indicator of a rapidly changing world.

      The civil rights movement had been gathering steam in North Carolina since 1960 when four black students in Greensboro staged the nation’s first lunch counter sit-in. Vietnam, a country few North Carolinians could have located on the globe not long before, was becoming a topic of discussion. Betty Friedan published her watershed book,The Feminine Mystique. Then, on November 22, 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot to death...

    • CHAPTER 14 FEDERAL JOB PROPOSALS
      (pp. 298-318)

      Whatever the frustrations of her job, Justice Sharp found that she had to fight a constant battle to keep from getting “promoted” to the federal bench, either the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court. Although she was ambivalent at best about the idea, she was a serious candidate for the highest court in the land for almost two decades prior to Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment in 1981. Her consideration at every vacancy reflected her national standing.

      She had scarcely gotten settled in her new position on North Carolina’s highest court when Governor Terry Sanford, in effect,...

    • CHAPTER 15 OUT OF COURT
      (pp. 319-335)

      When Judge Sharp moved to Raleigh in 1962, hastily arranging for rooms in the Hotel Sir Walter, she did not imagine that she would never again live in Reidsville. She had refused numerous opportunities to sell her empty lot in the Pennrose neighborhood of Reidsville, earmarked for her retirement, and she entertained herself from time to time with house plans. At first, of course, she had no idea whether she would remain on the supreme court, although after having been the top vote getter in the 1962 and 1966 elections, she knew that she could stay as long as her...

    • CHAPTER 16 CHIEF JUSTICE ELECTION
      (pp. 336-366)

      Not since 1902 had a North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice initially taken office by way of election. For seventy-two years prior to the 1974 elections, whenever a chief justice died or retired, one in an unbroken string of Democratic governors had appointed the next most senior justice to succeed him. The appointment amounted to a lifetime position, for under what was essentially a one-party system, an incumbent was unlikely to lose his seat or even be opposed when elections were held.¹ This procedure reliably ensured a Democrat as chief justice, given the scarcity of Republican justices. There had not...

    • CHAPTER 17 CHIEF JUSTICE
      (pp. 367-388)

      At her swearing-in ceremony, Chief Justice Susie Marshall Sharp devoted her first official remarks largely to a tribute to retiring chief justice Bobbitt and associate justice Higgins, lamenting the mandatory retirement law that was forcing them off the court. The state would be the poorer for their absence, she said, but—referring to her own age-limited term—she quipped that “the law that impoverished the state in 1974 may very well save it in 1979.”

      The ceremony took only fifteen minutes, but it came nearly half a century after the pudgy young Susie Sharp had launched her unprecedented career when...

    • CHAPTER 18 EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT
      (pp. 389-405)

      Undoubtedly Justice Sharp’s most famous, least understood, and most resented interference in matters of public policy was her opposition to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution in North Carolina. Her opposition, largely due to the critical timing of the vote in North Carolina, had a major impact on the failure of the amendment nationally.

      The ERA struggle spanned roughly twelve years, from 1970 to 1982, encompassing the last nine years of Justice Sharp’s service on the North Carolina Supreme Court, four as chief justice, and continuing past her 1979 retirement. First introduced in Congress...

    • CHAPTER 19 STEPPING OFF THE STAGE
      (pp. 406-430)

      In mid-December 1975, almost fourteen years after she took rooms at the Hotel Sir Walter when she came to Raleigh as a new member of the supreme court, Judge Sharp finally moved into an apartment. It was a townhouse on a busy boulevard, a short drive to the Justice Building and not far from the Cameron Village shopping center with its stores and cafeteria. She had resisted the move as long as she could, but the hotel had deteriorated along with the downtown, and she and State Treasurer Edwin Gill were almost the last of the old residents. Gill had...

  9. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 431-438)

    It seemed right that, after half a century of hard work and sacrifice, Judge Sharp should have years of pleasure and enjoyment ahead of her. She looked forward to having time to travel, to indulge her thwarted interest in cooking, to relax for the first time in her life without the pressure of an all-consuming job. But her later years were to be filled with misfortune and tragedy on an epic scale.

    She did have an opportunity to do some foreign traveling with Judge Bobbitt during the first few years after her retirement. With various groups, they visited England and...

  10. A NOTE ON SOURCES
    (pp. 439-440)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 441-520)
  12. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 521-530)
  13. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 531-532)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 533-559)